Other NHL All-Stars assess the Avalanche: “I think they have the team to do it again”

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TORONTO — The schedule makers have given the rest of the NHL a brief respite from Nathan MacKinnon tormenting their teams on a nightly basis, but any of them hoping some time off might slow him down could end up pretty disappointed.

MacKinnon hasn’t played a competitive game in eight days. He sounded pretty eager to get back to the grind Saturday after scoring twice in the 2024 NHL All-Star Game.

“Honestly, the whole break right you’re always thinking about (ramping back up),” MacKinnon said. “You’re always stressed, looking in the mirror and (thinking) you look fat. Trying not to eat too much. Yeah, I think about it a lot. I think everyone does.”

The Avalanche entered the break as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Colorado went 13-3-1 after Devon Toews’ viral postgame criticism in the United Center locker room after a sluggish loss in Chicago.

It’s a surge that pushed the Avs back to the top of the Central Division, though Dallas and Winnipeg are one and two points behind, respectively.

“Looking ahead, it’s probably going to be Colorado or Winnipeg for us,” Stars goalie Jake Oettinger said. “That’s obviously a team that knows how to win a Stanley Cup. They’ve got one of the best top lines in the league. The best, er, second-best defenseman in the league behind Miro Heiskanen.

“Obviously, you don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but we know if we want to get to where we want to get to, we’re probably going to have to go through those guys. It will be a good challenge.”

MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Alexandar Georgiev all had successful showings at the NHL’s All-Star weekend. Having the event bring most of the best players and coaches from around the league to one city offered an opportunity to see what some of the Avs’ opponents have thought of the club this season and where they’re at as the second half beckons.

“I hate to play against them,” San Jose center Tomas Hertl said with a laugh. “No, it’s definitely one of the top teams in the NHL. Especially when it’s the first line with Cale Makar and (Devon Toews) on the ice, it is tough to deal with them. They move around everywhere on the ice and they can all fly. I faced the MacKinnon line most of the time I was playing them, and that’s not easy to do.

“I think they have the team to do it again. They built some great chemistry over the years, but the speed and what they can do on the ice is definitely special.”

MacKinnon is second in the NHL with 84 points and one of the top contenders for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Makar is second among defensemen in points and one of the top two candidates for the Norris Trophy.

The Avs lead the NHL at 3.84 goals per game and are co-leaders with 47 power-play goals. Their work with the extra man scuffled at times earlier in the season, but Colorado is operating at a scintillating 35.0% on the power play over the past 22 games.

“I think Jared Bednar coaches them to a great style of play,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said. “They play fast. They play hard. They are as responsible defensively as they are offensively. They are fun to watch, and fun to compete against.”

It’s hard for any discourse about the Avs to not eventually return to MacKinnon. He’s been a consensus top player in the NHL for several years. A pair of runners-up and two more top-five finishes in the Hart Trophy voting are proof of that.

The respect he has earned from his peers might be even stronger. And his performance through the first half of this season has left some of them in every bit the same amount of awe as fans at Ball Arena most nights.

“He’s an incredible player and he’s on another level right now,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “You talk with the guys after the game and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty special hockey player.’ He’s doing stuff that even the rest of the league is wowed with. I know him a little bit from over the years and he’s worked extremely hard.

“There were years in Colorado where it wasn’t so glamorous for him. He fought through that and he won a Cup, but he just continues to elevate his game. It’s cool to watch when you’re not playing them.”

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